Veteran wildlife cameraman Mike Richards has been dispatched to all corners of the globe in pursuit of hard-to- capture animal subjects. But few assignments have proved tougher than the one he undertook for a new two-part BBC documentary. Wait for it... observing a pet guinea pig giving birth!
Richards paced around the guinea pig cage for nearly a month waiting for the pregnant mum to deliver her offspring. And then when it eventually happened he’d briefly stepped away from his camera to make a cup of tea.
“Filming the guinea pig birth was probably the hardest thing we had to do,” laughs Phil Dalton, producer of Pets: Wild at Heart. “Their gestation period varies greatly and the birth can happen anytime over 20 days. In this case it looked like she was about to give birth, but in the end went on for another ten days. Fortunately we got it using remote cameras.”
The reason for the secrecy is not coyness, but self-preservation. In the wild, the mother would be at risk from predators and so bears her young out of sight. The same is true of horses, says Dalton. “Eighty-six percent of all horse births occur between midnight and 6am. The mares will naturally wait until there are no humans around.”
It’s a sign, he says, of how pets and domesticated animals have retained many of their wild traits. Take Disco the budgie. He has mastered a staggering 130 phrases – including “Aren’t you a little short for a Storm Trooper?” (Star Wars) and “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” (Monty Python). Such linguistic prowess starts while the budgie is still in the egg. “Recordings at nest sites have shown that mothers have different signature calls for each of her unborn chicks,” says Dalton. “The young then use that signature call to help establish their own identity. “
One of the film breakthroughs revealed in the series is a technique that by capturing air movement shows precisely how animals such as dogs and cats breathe. In the case of the cat, it’s a bit of heavy breathing caused by an encounter with nepeta cataria, otherwise known as catnip.
“They love to roll in the plant so that it releases an oil that acts on them like a sex pheromone. They get quite glassy-eyed.”
Dalton says he hopes the programme will remind pet owners that their animals are wild at heart. “If you work out what makes them tick in the wild you can enrich their lives at home. Hopefully people will discover a new pet within their existing pet.”
1) Hamsters reach 600 strides a minute.
-At top speed, hamsters can reach 600 strides a minute. In the wild, they can run six miles a night.
-They have glands under their stomach that produce a scent enabling them to retrace their steps home.
- Hamsters not only store their own body weight of food in their cheeks, but the absence of saliva glands means the food remains fresh and dry.
2) Cats use other cats to babysit
-Cats have a hidden claw, known as the dew claw, that flicks out like a knife when they climb. But don’t be alarmed when cats narrow their eyes — it’s actually a sign of friendship.
-Suckling kittens prefer not to share teats and “nametag” their preferred supply source with their own scent. But when not suckling, mums use other cats as babysitters.
3) Budgies name their offspring
-Some budgies can mimic up to 70 human phrases and are said to assign names to their offspring.
-Budgies glow in the dark; females are attracted to males with feathers that absorb ultraviolet, thus making them glow.
4) Dogs track bitches from miles away
-The area of the brain devoted to smell in dogs is 40 percent larger than ours.
-Dogs can smell through the roof of the mouth using a scent organ that bypasses the nose and helps track females three miles away or more.
5) Goldfish recognise their owners
-Goldfish can, by all accounts, remember tasks for a period of three months or more. It’s also claimed that they can recognise their owners.
-If a goldfish’s eyes are damaged it can regrow them.
Wild at Heart is on BBC1 at 8pm